You know what I like? A bad movie that's cheerfully stupid. Well, maybe "like" is a strong word. I still prefer movies that aren't stupid at all. But if a movie HAS to be stupid -- and one could argue that a movie in which Victorian-era scientists drill to the center of the Earth and discover a race of English-speaking people does indeed HAVE to be stupid -- the least it can do is be cheerful about it. I have no patience for a stupid movie that's also sullen. Crash, for example.
At the Earth's Core is bright and merry and as dumb as a basket of pinecones. It looks like it cost all of $75 to make. The action sequences are so dull and clunky they make Our Town look like Transformers. You get the feeling nobody involved had the slightest interest in making a quality film. They just wanted to make a film, period, something that could be projected against a screen in a darkened theater. And at that they succeeded! (I assume. I watched it on Netflix.)
The film is based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created Tarzan and, apparently, other things. It's sometime around the turn of the last century. An elderly British scientist named Dr. Perry (Peter Cushing) and his brash American assistant, David (Doug McClure), have invented a "high-calibration digging machine" known as the Iron Mole, which coincidentally was the name I used when I was professional wrestler. The Iron Mole is basically a giant drill bit with a cockpit that an elderly British scientist and his brash American assistant can sit in as they bore their way through rock and granite. Dr. Perry, who looks like one of the doddering bankers in Mary Poppins, or maybe the tuberculous brother of the Monopoly guy, has invented the Iron Mole for the purpose of digging tunnels through mountains. But in the device's first demonstration, he and David accidentally dig all the way to the center of the Earth; whoops.
This takes surprisingly little time. Dr. Perry and David fall unconscious due to the extreme heat; when they wake up, they're at the Earth's core. The ol' Iron Mole just kept on a-drillin'. Meanwhile, the scientists were seemingly unaware that they would be unable to stop the Iron Mole once it started, and that if they dug too far it would get hot. Could you be smart enough to build an Iron Mole but dumb enough not to know those other things? Sure. Albert Einstein always had trouble programming his VCR and Stephen Hawking [redacted joke].
Perry and David's reaction to finding themselves at the Earth's core could best be described as "mild interest." They act the way one does when one finds mushrooms growing on one's lawn: "Huh. How about that." They are not at all surprised to discover that the Earth's core has plenty of breathable air and is remarkably well lit.
They weren't expecting to find Chilean miners, though. That part threw them off.
No, I kid, there are no miners. We'll remove that dated joke if we ever compile a book of these things. Instead of miners, Perry and David find a tall bird-like reptile -- or possibly a tall reptilian bird -- that appears to have been constructed by Sid and Marty Krofft for a children's television show, except that instead of being intended as goofy and coming across as terrifying it is intended as terrifying and comes across as goofy. The beaked monster "pursues" (OK, lumbers slowly and cow-like toward) Perry and David, who run right into the clutches of the Sagoths, a race of dull-witted, pig-faced drones whose job is to gather slaves for the birdosaurs, who are called Mahars. Perry and David are shackled to a row of fellow slaves who are neither Sagoth nor Mahar but ordinary humans, or whatever the center-of-the-Earth equivalent of humans is. They're dressed like cavepeople. Perry and David assume, quite reasonably, that they are savages who will not understand their language, so they point at themselves and say their names in loud, clear tones, the way one does when encountering a primitive subterranean race. Then the locals respond in what turns out to be perfect English -- yet another surprising development that registers no surprise in Perry and David whatsoever.
The pretty girl, named Dia (Caroline Munro), is destined to become David's love interest. David is a Capt. Kirk sort of explorer, bold and thick-necked and heroic despite being kind of an idiot. You get the impression he falls in love with one of the locals wherever he goes, probably collecting all manner of exotic STDs along the way. Dia, meanwhile, is fending off advances from "Hoojah the sly one" and "Jubal the ugly one," members of her tribe and co-slaves who are always referred to by their full appellations, which amuses me to no end. I mean, you name your kid "Jubal the ugly one," he's bound to turn out mean.
So the deal is that the Mahars, the big bird-like things, govern the dumb Sagoths via mind control. The Sagoths collect slaves from the local tribes and use those slaves to work in the Mahars' caverns, digging and stuff. Also, occasionally the Mahars will eat one of the slaves, just to keep them on their toes. (Jefferson Davis used to do the same thing.) The local tribes, despite speaking English and not having to rely on mind control, have not been able to fight back against the Mahars. But that's only because no daring men from the Earth's surface have been here to do it for them! Things are bound to change for the better now that Perry the elderly one and David the beefy one have arrived.
As expected, Perry and David are not particularly bothered by their enslavement. Perry gets to sift through the Mahars' library (note: the Mahars have a library), figure out their written language and learn their history, while David promptly escapes. He meets up with a fellow named Ra (Cy Grant), a local tribesman who is at first David's enemy and they fight, but then they become friends. David does the whole "I am called 'David' thing" again, but of course Ra speaks English anyway, like everybody else in (and, apparently, under) the world.
David and Perry rally the local tribes together to fight the Mahars. Perry even shows them how to use a bow and arrow, which they have never seen before. Naturally, this primitive tribe of hunter-gatherers needs a fussy, 70-year-old British scientist to teach them basic survival skills. No wonder they're constantly being enslaved by bird-monsters.
Oh, but first the bird-monsters capture David for a minute and make him fight a hippo-saurus. They give him a trident with which to defend himself, then seem very offended when he actually kills the beast with it, like no one had ever thought of that before. The bird-monsters themselves are not particularly adept warriors. They can fly, but not very well, what with special effects being expensive and all. You might think that a battle between a beefy man and a person in a rubber hippo-saurus costume would be entertaining, but it isn't. It also isn't very entertaining any of the other times that various prehistoric-looking creatures fight each other in this movie, because they're all slow and clumsy and unconvincing, like a no-holds-barred wrestling match between Dom DeLuise and Jonah Hill. (Actually, that does sound intriguing, so never mind.)
Eventually the monsters are defeated, and the tribespeople have learned the important skills of archery and letting outsiders solve their problems for them. Having accomplished this, Perry and David hop back in the Iron Mole and head home. Like everything else momentous that occurs in the film, this is done without any apparent difficulty or effort. Therein lies the movie's real weakness: Nearly everything in it ought to be thrilling, yet even the characters themselves react with mere bemusement. If Peter Cushing can't be bothered to pretend to be scared when footage of a bird-monster is projected on a screen behind him, why should I?
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Eric's Bad Movies appears Thursdays at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, The Iron Mole's Dungeon.